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In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul begins his discourse on love with a reference to a series of wonderous actions. But each of these marvels, Paul says the action counts for nothing if it is not done in love:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1–3. It is easy to take Paul’s language of “nothing” as a mere rhetorical flourish.

But this illustration by a once well-known preacher J.D. Jones provides a well-constructed illustration which makes plain the substance of the Apostle’s argument. This illustration works first by referencing a commonplace which is instantly comprehensible by audience (a “naught” is a zero). Second, the illustration maps back onto Paul’s argument of “nothing”. These things without love are actually nothing.

Jones uses the symbol of “nothing” to illustrate his point:

“Love” is no “adjunct” to the Apostle. It is no “minor interest.” It is not something that competes for place with work and politics and play. It is the thing that gives everything else value. It is the thing that confers upon everything else its worth. The gifts Paul mentions in these verses were not insignificant and commonplace gifts. They were the greatest and most coveted of gifts. And what he says of them all is that they are valueless without love. They are like a row of ciphers without a digit in front to give them value. Write down a row of noughts. Write down a dozen of them, and what do they amount to? Exactly nothing! And if you were to write a thousand of them they would be nothing still. But put a figure in front of those noughts and they at once become significant. They stand for something, they mean much. Put three noughts down and they amount to just nothing. Just a “I” in front of them and they mean a thousand. And it is like that with gifts and powers, says the Apostles. They count for nothing without love. Life itself is nothing without love. It is no mere “adjunct,” no mere “minor interest.” It is that which makes life significant and worth while; it is that which lends to every gift its worth.

J. D. Jones, The Greatest of These: Addresses on the Thirteenth Chapter of First Corinthians (London: Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1925), 39–40.